Interactive art exhibit in Port Alberni challenges stigma

Marilyn Bueckert and a visitor look over the names of those who have lost their lives to overdoses or addiction. ELENA RARDON PHOTO
Marilyn Bueckert and a visitor look over the real-life commentary from people struggling with addictions. ELENA RARDON PHOTO
An interactive portion of the Stigmatized exhibit allowed visitors to live the experience of a panhandler. ELENA RARDON PHOTO
This mannequin, part of the Stigmatized exhibit, offered a mirror for the viewer. ELENA RARDON PHOTO

An interactive art exhibit hosted in Port Alberni earlier this month tackled the stigmatization of addiction.

“Stigmatized” is an exhibit put on by artist Stacy Middlemiss, coordinator for the Community Action Team (CAT) in the Cowichan Valley. The exhibit took place in an empty space on upper Third Avenue next to Alberni Community and Women’s Services Society (ACAWS) on Wednesday, Aug. 7, coinciding with the Arrowview Street Market that brings plenty of pedestrian traffic to the Uptown.

“Stigmatized” exposes the harsh realities of life on the streets. Visitors wandered down a dark hallway, taking a peek into rooms with various projections and mannequins set up to look like people experiencing homelessness. Posters and pictures on the wall offered real-life quotations from people who have experienced addiction, and the names of some of those who lost their lives. Visitors could even sit on the floor and experience the view of a panhandler, ignored by passersby.

“I do a lot of work with people with lived experience,” explained Middlemiss, who works as a psychiatric nurse. “This was a way for their voice to be heard. It’s about educating the community—everybody is somebody’s loved one.”

After a meeting and “knowledge exchange” between Vancouver Island CATs, Middlemiss was contacted by Port Alberni CAT coordinator Marc Lacroix about bringing her exhibit to the Alberni Valley.

“There are a lot of similarities between the issues we’re facing,” she said.

Lacroix agreed that there are similarities between Port Alberni and Duncan, especially when it comes to the opioid crisis.

“It’s a reminder that we’re not alone in this,” Lacroix said. “It’s a learning process for all of us. We wanted to welcome her to show us her exhibit, but we also wanted to look at stigma in the Valley.”

Stigma, said Lacroix, is one of the leading causes of people using drugs alone.

“Our CAT sees stigma as something that is directly interfering with our efforts to resolve the opioid crisis,” he added. “It’s something that we can change, without money, so it’s one of our main areas of focus.”

Port Alberni’s CAT is an on-the-ground team that works with existing community partners to deliver proactive and comprehensive care and support to people at risk of overdose. CAT members consist of representatives of more than a dozen organizations, as well as people with lived experience. Last year, the province allocated $1.5 million to establish CATs in 18 communities provincewide, including Port Alberni.

READ: Alberni group focuses on stigmatization as biggest barrier to opioid crisis

READ: Addiction should be treated, not criminalized, say health professionals

But Debra Hamilton, co-chair for the Port Alberni CAT, says that Port Alberni’s CAT is unique, in that it was operating and collaborating “long before” funding ever hit the table.

“That speaks to the will of the membership and the will of the community as a whole,” she said.

Hamilton added that the CAT will be receiving additional provincial funding this September in order to continue operating.

Marilyn Bueckert is another member of the Port Alberni CAT, but in a different role. She is a person with lived experience, as her son has struggled with addiction. She led visitors through the exhibit, explaining that people with addictions are loved by someone, but stigma prevents them from reaching out for help.

“I hope that every person has someone who loves them,” she said. “They need to feel support, need a sense of hope, need shelter. To feel that they belong.”

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